A Final Answer on the Citizenship Question

July 12, 2019

Since December 2017, Census advocates have remained a in state of limbo as to whether or not a question of citizenship would appear on the 2020 Census. Now, after 19 months of advocacy and several federal court cases, we have a final answer: it will not.

Didn’t the Supreme Court already rule on this?

Yes, sort of. Justice Roberts’ opinion upheld the Administration’s right to add questions, including one on citizenship. But, the majority also determined the provided rationale for adding the question was insufficient and capricious. Specifically, it stated “we do not hold that the agency [Commerce Department / Census Bureau] decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.” Read more about the ruling here.

What’s the most current news?

On Thursday, July 11, the President announced he would not pursue further legal action. In addition, he signed an executive order that compels relevant agencies to share records on citizenship data with the Census Bureau. The goal of this order would be to allow the Census Bureau to use administrative records to match and piece together data on citizenship for census respondents without asking them directly on the questionnaire. While this may produce new data on citizenship, it remains unclear why this action would be necessary given that the federal government continues to obtain and report reliable survey data on citizenship at various geographic levels from the American Community Survey (ACS).

Why is this a big deal?

Yesterday’s announcement was a partial victory for census advocates who feared the real threats posed by the question. There was little doubt among experts that introducing a question of citizenship into the 2020 Census decennial environment this late in the process would reduce self-reporting, balloon the cost of the census, produce inaccurate data and risk the accuracy of final counts. Preliminary testing also supported this conclusion. Even minor inaccuracies in final counts could have major implications for municipal governments’ ability to plan and operate in the future.

It is important to note that these risks existed in a larger context of an all-time high degree of mistrust in government and a heightened climate of fear among many populations. While adding a question may seem like a minor change, even a “simple addition” posed real risks to census participation, and ultimately census data integrity.

Why is this only a partial victory for local leaders?

The rhetoric surrounding the debate to add a question has already damaged trust in the census. Community leaders will need to continue their work to build trust in the process and undue some of that damage.

The goal of every community has not changed. Every city, town and village needs to be counted fairly and accurately. Local leaders serve an invaluable role in making sure that happens by partnering with the Census Bureau and convening trusted voices to serve as champions.

What is the National League of Cities Doing?

The National League of Cities (NLC) continues to serve as a resource to help municipal governments prepare for the 2020 Census. Just this week, NLC joined the Harvard Kennedy School in convening more than 30 city census coordinators for a two-day seminar and peer learning network meeting. We will also continue to produce and share tools and resources to help communities of all types get ready to be counted next year. Get started and learn more about our work at www.nlc.org/census.

Brian Egan small.jpgAbout the Author: Brian Egan is NLC’s Principal Associate for Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME.